On Empathy

Engaging our empathy can be revolutionary. Empathy is a muscle that can be exercised and strengthened. Empathy can spark action for collective liberation. 

Messages about empathy keep coming to me, most recently at the Reality Check Conference (click here for my article about it). Organized by Leslie Council Lake and Keynon Lake of My Sistah Taught Me That and My Daddy Taught Me That and a team of supporters, the conference offered a “reality check” about racism.

Conference-photo by Amanda Jo Cary
Leslie Council Lake speaking at the Reality Check Conference. Photo: Amanda Jo Cary.

The day began with a talk about empathy by Dr. Rebecca Bernstein. She outlined research showing how white people tend to show more empathy to other white people, and significantly less to people of color. She gave examples of how this leads to biased medical care. It made me think about how, in order to be able to stomach the horrors of slavery, white people had to believe that African American people were less than human. How does that belief still linger in our psyches, allowing us to stomach the inequities and injustices that exist today?

Bernstein also discussed steps towards developing greater empathy. One of the suggestions she made was to stop and seek more information whenever you find yourself acting out of assumptions about another person based on your internal biases. Loving-kindness meditation was another suggestion. While I do not have extensive notes from her talk to share, an internet search will lead you to studies and stories about empathy and how to develop it.

Reality Check with local leaders Leslie Lake, Libby Kyles, Shuvonda Harper and Shaunda Sandford. Photo: Ami Worthen.

Other speakers at the conference gave us opportunities to feel empathy as we learned about the current and historical trauma experienced by the African American community in this area, and across the country. We were particularly gifted with bold truth-telling from a number of local black leaders. The amount of sacrifice and struggle and grief and resilience leaders such as those pictured above experience in service of community is humbling. 

Decolonizing empathy

In the piece, “Decolonizing empathy: why our pain will never be enough to disarm white supremacy,” for the Black Youth Project, Sherronda J. Brown also shares examples of warped beliefs around black and brown pain. “Denying that we feel pain in the same way as white people makes it easy to dehumanize us and frame the consumption of the Other as a necessary violence,” Brown declares. “It also turns our pain into a spectacle and fosters a lack of empathy for our suffering.”

“Empathy is tricky,” Brown continues. “It requires the witnessing of pain and suffering. We can only identify with the pain of others through the understanding and profound feeling of our own suffering, but that only exists when we are able to recognize a shared vulnerability.”

“White supremacy will never be dismantled through white empathy because it does not recognize the vulnerability of people of color. We cannot rely on whiteness to ‘feel our pain’ when it actively works against recognizing the totality of that pain to begin with.”

“Pain is political. White supremacy has made it so. Pain is its weapon and its lie. It must control the narrative of pain, deciding who feels it and to what degree, because our ability to recognize pain in others is at the core of our ability to feel empathy for others, and empathy for others is what moves us to action. White supremacy cannot offer empathy to the victims of its violence. Otherwise, white supremacist violences could not be so readily justified and the entire system would collapse.”

Brown’s belief that “white supremacy will never be dismantled through white empathy” is completely justified. At the same time, I hold hope that if we can find ways to build the capacity for empathy in white people (along with other strategies) “the entire system would collapse.” 

Suppressing the development of empathy is one way systems of oppression maintain themselves. Which is why I think empathy has revolutionary potential. 

The numbness we feel as white people is real. It will take intentional, uncomfortable effort to bring sensation back to our souls.

Nina Simons

On episode 40 of the For the Wild podcast, Nina Simons on the Holistic Endeavor of Shifting Culture, Simons states, “as a woman of Jewish and therefore Anglo descent, I have identified conditioning in myself that has caused me in the past to smooth over racial difference, and even the discomfort of sitting with another’s trauma or pain. It’s required me to actually turn towards building some courage and muscle in myself on a psychological level to be able to keep turning towards how do I develop my own capacity to stay in that conversation so that I can act on behalf of the world I want.”

As we stumble along this path towards expanded empathy, we can remember that guilt and shame are not helpful. As Simons put it, “when I compare the tendency towards guilt, and shame and embarrassment to the kinds of abuse and violence that people of color have been subject to in the country for so long, it’s just not even remotely comparable and it causes me to want to hold myself to a higher standard than to dissolve into guilt and shame when discomfort arises.”

“To be willing to sit in the discomfort of not knowing, and a kind of simultaneous holding myself responsible for my actions and accountable, but not guilty and not shameful. We choose who we are going to be each day, and to dwell on my innocence and my delusional perspective from the past does nothing to change the systems in the present and the future.”

Onward, with a willingness to feel deeply and act boldly.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Positive Changes college trip, 2017.

Positive Changes

Re-sharing this call for support from Dewana Little of Positive Changes:

I am writing you all because we need your help to reach our fundraising goal of $20,000 to support the implementation of the 2018 College Exploration Trip….Due to some unexpected changes in committed funding we are having to do this last minute push but I am optimistic that we can work together to make this trip happen for our community youth.

PCYM is striving to improve the high school graduation and college enrollment rates by showing youth living in marginalized communities of Asheville and Buncombe County, who otherwise would not be able to afford to explore institutions of higher education, that a college degree and upward mobility is possible.

All levels of sponsorship will go towards, including but not limited to, paying for travel, food, lodging, and educational recreation expenses for high school youth. Please submit donations by July 6, 2018, the trip will be July 29th – Aug. 6. You can donate online here.

Immigrant Rights Advocacy

Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción (CIMA) and the WNC Sanctuary Movement offer some action steps on this page on the CIMA website.


After writing this post, I logged onto social media to learn that a 12-year old boy was shot and killed in Lee Walker Heights on Sunday morning. Another incomprehensible tragedy. This piece I wrote, “When Our Babies Use Bullets,” touches on what I believe to be some of the systemic causes of the violence that all too regularly occurs in our public housing communities. Unjust government actions that are a clear case for reparations. With this senseless death, I am all the more angry at the city passing a budget that prioritizes police over programs for the people. This is yet another call to support our neighbors that the system has shut out – people, primarily people of color, struggling within the systematically created pockets of poverty that exist within yards of homes and businesses of people with excess wealth.

I’m sending love to everyone devastated by this loss, which should be all of us.


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